Former U.S. president and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump likes to attack anyone he perceives as a rival, even if they are of little importance. But when his former vice president, Mike Pence, announced he was also running for the White House in June, Trump largely left him alone. But that changed last week, when Trump lashed out: “I feel badly for Mike Pence, who is attracting no crowds, enthusiasm, or loyalty from people who, as a member of the Trump Administration, should be loving him.” The reason for the change was clear: Pence’s testimony is key to the indictment against Trump over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. His once-faithful servant is emerging as a pivotal figure in what promises to be a historic trial.
Pence, 64, is not a glamorous politician. Many adjectives can be used to describe him, but “charismatic” is not the first that comes to mind. In many respects, he is the absolute opposite of his former running mate. Where Trump is exuberant and fickle, the former governor of Indiana is discreet, always neat and always proper. He comes from the most conservative and religious wing of the Republican Party: he is an evangelical Christian, who considers the fight against reproductive rights one of his top objectives. By his own admission, he avoids being alone with a woman other than his wife, Karen.
Pence didn’t seem like the most obvious choice to join Trump in the White House. And yet, the combination worked. The extroverted New York-raised real-estate magnate wanted a vice president with rural roots that would connect with the evangelical Republican base. A political path was opening up for Pence — one that would have been very difficult for him to achieve on his own. Throughout the campaign, and after his victory in the 2016 elections, the two appeared to have a good relationship. The former governor collaborated deferentially with Trump and willingly fulfilled a secondary role, defending each of his decisions and making sure not to steal the limelight. Back then, Trump described his vice president as “a good man.”
This relationship changed when Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. The former president spread false allegations of voter fraud and pressured Pence to refuse to certify the results of Joe Biden’s win. When Pence refused, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, yelling “Hang Mike Pence!” The final deathblow was Pence’s testimony in the latest indictment against Trump, which is the most serious of the three he is facing.
The former vice president’s testimony and notes, taken in January 2021, are central to the case that special counsel Jack Smith has been preparing over the past two and a half years. Pence’s conversations with Trump in the weeks leading up to the January 6 assault, and the notes he took about them, are cited over and over again in the 45-page indictment document. Based on this evidence, Smith argues that the former president and six of his aides constantly pressured Pence not to certify the election results. If Pence testifies in trial, his statement could be devastating for Trump.
On December 25, 2020, Pence called Trump to wish him a Merry Christmas. According to the indictment, Trump “quickly turned the conversation to January 6 and his request that the vice president reject electoral votes that day.” Pence pushed back, replying: “You know, I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome.” A week later, on January 1, 2021, Trump attacked Pence for ruling out a lawsuit to authorize him to dismiss the votes. “You’re too honest,” Trump told him.
Pence — who maintains that his actions on January 6, 2021, upheld the Constitution, although he believes that Trump did not commit a crime with respect to the assault on the Capitol — did not want to testify in the investigation. He tried to avoid testifying until the last moment, even filing an appeal against the summons. He only agreed to speak with investigators when a judge rejected his appeal.
“They asked me to annul the elections”
Like the rest of the 2024 Republican presidential candidates, Pence had tried to maintain a delicate balance between the need to distance himself from Trump, his now rival, without confronting the many Republican voters who support the former president. It’s a position that has not helped him gain followers: before last week, he was only polling at around 5%. Indeed, his campaign does not meet the 40,000 donor threshold set to qualify to participate in televised debates. To Trump supporters, he is a traitor to the cause. For those who criticize the former president, he is the man who supported the excesses of the Trump government.
Following Trump’s latest indictment, however, Pence has taken on his former boss in much stronger terms. And he has not ruled out testifying at trial. “What the president maintained that day [January 6, 2021] and frankly has said over and over again over the last two and a half years is completely false,” Pence told reporters in Indianapolis. “And it’s contrary to what our Constitution and the laws of this country provide.”
“The American people deserve to know that president Trump and his advisers didn’t just ask me to pause. They asked me to reject votes, return votes, essentially to overturn the election,” he told Fox News.
Although, true to his cautious nature, he has avoided saying that Trump committed a crime. “My focus is going to be not on the indictment or the merits of it,” he said Wednesday. “The president can make his case for it. But I’m going to make it clear to the American people, as I seek the Republican nomination, that despite what Donald Trump has said over the last two and a half years, that I had no right to overturn the election,” he said.
The Pence campaign claims that it has received more than 7,400 donations since the release of the indictment, a jump of almost 25% compared to the previous week. But his problems continue. His fundraising campaign — which has around $1 million — is light years behind rivals such as Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Only 44% of Republican voters have a favorable perception of Pence, compared to 66% for DeSantis, or 76% for Trump, according to a poll published by The New York Times. At a Saturday rally in New Hampshire, a group of Trump supporters booed him when he arrived, yelling: “Traitor, sell out!”
Pence, meanwhile, is trying to take advantage of the attention caused by the indictment in a bid to boost support, painting himself as a man who does what he must, regardless of pressure. His campaign’s latest merchandising offering is a mocking allusion to Trump’s insults: caps and T-shirts with the slogan “too honest.”
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